If you drive through the great croplands of eastern and southern Africa this month, you'll encounter long stretches of withered corn ears, desiccated grain shoots and parched, dead fields. They could be lush and green, if the farmers were able to plant new water-efficient, high-yield varieties of corn and other crops. But they're stopped by dangerous myths and backward superstitions.
Those myths and superstitions aren't African. Quite the contrary: Small-hold farmers in the developing world are increasingly savvy, well-connected and modern. The backward beliefs come from this side of the world. I saw them this week, when I bought a fancy Ace Bakery baguette for $3 in a wrapper reading "Non-GMO Verified." The bakery is profiting from the unfounded belief, widely held among Western consumers and officials, that hybrid grains created through genetic modification are unhealthy, unecological or dangerous.
In countries such as Canada, where we grow more food than we need, such beliefs are little more than curious food fads. In Africa and in many parts of Asia, those Western fallacies are killing people.
Consider Kenya, whose 45 million people largely depend on the harvest of maize for survival, but whose fields, which should feed most of Africa, are devastated by poor irrigation and aflatoxin, the by-product of a grain-eating mould, often leaving many people on the edge of starvation.
By this point in 2016, Kenya could have been planting a new, free, super-hardy Water-Efficient Maize, developed using genetic methods by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other charities, and proven in Kenyan test fields to produce vastly larger harvests even in droughts and climate-change conditions.
But in 2012, a French anti-GMO activist published a study claiming that genetically modified maize causes tumours in rats. That study was proved to be fraudulent and was withdrawn by its journal – but not before a Western activist showed it to Kenya's health minister, who was suffering from breast cancer, which she concluded she must have "caught" from eating corn while on an U.S. visit. On the basis of this European fiction, she promptly banned all cultivation of GM crops in Kenya – a ban that is being removed only now, too late for this year's harvest.
This week, the National Academy of Sciences released a mammoth study, by a large team of respected scientists who have no agribusiness involvement, which studied 20 years of Western cultivation and consumption of GM crops. It found absolutely zero health or nutritional differences between conventional and genetically altered crops in any form of food, or any possibility of health hazards in GM-developed hybrids. Ecologically, it found GM crops to be largely beneficial; the weaknesses it identified were counterbalanced by their benefits.
Genetic engineering, then, is no different than the old-fashioned crossbreeding that lifted billions of people out of starvation in the 1970s. We now have the means for the next one – and a huge new range of climate-proof crops, sometimes known as GMO 2.0, being created by non-profit development organizations specifically for Africa and Asia.
We shouldn't conclude that it all comes down to gene-altered hybrids. As Matthew Schnurr of Dalhousie University's International Development Studies department told me, a lot of the most promising biotech he has seen in Africa is non-genetic in nature, and needs to be combined with better infrastructure and organization.
The problem, he says, is that this gets jeopardized by the anti-GMO hysteria: "When you have a technology that can provoke irrational and unfounded fears, sometimes it can undermine really important scientific work that's going on – in a lot of African countries, all these new biotechnologies are being grouped together under a single legislative framework. If there's a major controversy around GM, oftentimes the other biotechnologies that go along with it also get slowed down."
This week, Prof. Schnurr and agricultural economist Stuart Smyth of the University of Saskatchewan released a policy brief that shows how Canada can help use GM crops to benefit the world's poor. These important new crops, widely used in Canada, have been "invisible" in our foreign-development agenda, it says, and suggests that they be introduced not in a top-down forceful way, but in careful co-operation with farmers in the developing world.
We could play a big part in helping to make starvation, malnourishment and poverty far less commonplace. We need to begin by ridding ourselves of supermarket-based superstition.